Mar 6, 2015
What Is Polyphony Anyway?
Polyphony–whether of the New York variety or not–is music consisting of two or more independent melodic lines, which are heard simultaneously, and are relatively equal. Historically, polyphony developed during the Medieval period, in the context of Catholic worship.
In earliest Medieval times, the Church restricted worship music to unison-voiced Gregorian chant. In the tenth century, however, simple two-part harmonizations of chant first appeared, and in the 1100s, a third and fourth voice were allowed to be added.
In the 1200s, composers began to diversify their lines with increasingly complex rhythms, and to simultaneously use more than one text, sometimes in two different languages. As a result, in the year 1322 Pope John XXII forbid the use of polyphony in a liturgical setting, on the grounds that the chant at the heart of worship was being overwhelmed by other lines. Less than thirty years later, however, Clement VI reversed this directive, and on the whole, polyphony constituted the dominant musical style for Church use between about 1200 and 1650.
The Song of Songs, Courtly Love, And A Lily Among Thorns
Musical works written for the Church, based as they were in words, frequently employed Biblical texts. Many sprang from one particular surprising source: the Song of Songs. Why surprising? Because although this long poem does comprise a book of the Bible, it is, at least on its surface, highly erotic. We don’t tend to think of erotic poetry as strictly religious subject matter.
In fact, the overt eroticism of the Song of Songs has occasioned a long history of commentary and creativity: religious thinkers of many traditions have been at pains to find alternate meanings for the poem’s images, and the Song has been treated, often and extensively, as allegory. In the 1100s, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote no fewer than eighty-six sermons pursuing this point of view. St. Bernard analogized the poem’s earthly love between bride and bridegroom with ecstatic love between God and humankind; and more specifically, linked the bridegroom’s love for the bride with human love for the Virgin Mary.
At about the same time St. Bernard was rescuing and resuscitating the Song, the ideal of courtly love was developing, in which the erotic and the chaste, the bodily and the spiritual, became mysteriously mingled. This ethos, in which a knight might indulge in a passionate love for a noblelady forever out of reach, served as an influence, along with St. Bernard’s sermons, upon a flowering of religious verse and music extolling the Virgin Mary’s beauty in earthly terms.
Sometimes, excerpts from the Song of Songs were used directly for these new works; elsewhere, the Song’s floral and bodily imagery was merely borrowed for new texts. The image of the lily among thorns, from which this program takes its title, is taken from the Song, and appears in two of this evening’s selections, Brumel’s “Sicut lilium” and Clemens’ “Ego flos campi.” Other works drawn directly from the Song include Pyamour’s “Quam pulchra es”, Plummer’s “Tota pulchra es”, and Guerrero’s “Quae est ista”.
Francisco Guerrero was a Spanish singer and composer of onetime worldwide fame. His music, written at the height of the Spanish exploration and colonization of the Americas, and relatively simple and singable, was long popular among Catholic worshipers in the Western Hemisphere. Guerrero was born and died in Seville, but managed to have noteworthy adventures in between: returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he was kidnapped by pirates, robbed, and held for ransom. Upon his return to Spain, he was penniless, or centavo-less, and landed in debtor’s prison. Eventually, he turned his experiences into a popular book, El viaje de Hierusalem, before dying of the plague.
Guerrero was known as El Cantor de Maria, owing to the prominence of works devoted to Mary among his compositions. His “Regina caeli” is composed upon a standard Marian hymn, a responsory meant to be sung on Easter nights; while his “Quae es ista” sets to music a typically sensuous portion of the Song of Songs.
English Renaissance Music and Its Composers: Dunstable, Pyamour, Plummer
15th-century England was a hotbed of compositional activity, with its many composers of Church and court music making on impact on the European musical scene to rival that of the British invasion on America’s in the 1960s. The English style of the time came to be known in French as la contenance angloise: the term refers to a Lennon-and-McCartney-esque fullness of triadic harmony, and unsparing use of thirds and sixths, that was new to European ears, has a touch of modern familiarity to our own ears, and had a great impact upon Continental composers. La contenance angloise is particularly associated with Dunstable–who in spite of his historical importance is a figure of some mystery to historians. His biography is full of probablys and maybes; among these is the probability that he was in royal service. Knowledge of Pyamour’s life, and Powell’s, is also quite sketchy. Pyamour, is known to have been a member of the royal chapel; “Quam pulchra es” is his lone surviving motet. Plummer has two surviving motets, including “Tota pulchra es”; he, too, was a member of the royal chapel.
Michael McGlynn is a contemporary Irish composer and founder of the choral group Anúna, whose prodigious output of religiously inspired work harks back to long-ago generations. His “O pia virgo” was written for New York Polyphony, and dedicated to the memory of John Tavener, a British composer who died in 2013.
Antoine Brumel and Clemens non Papa
Brumel was a French composer of what is known as the Franco-Flemish school; the Flemish part of this descriptor refers to the kingdom of Flanders, which occupied present-day Belgium along with parts of the Netherlands and France. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Flanders stood at Europe’s political and cultural epicenter, and the polyphonic style of the Franco-Flemish school, emphasizing an equality of lines, was the mainstream musical language of the day. Brumel, though he employed this style, was actually French, and worked in Switzerland and Italy. He is noted for having been the first composer to apply polyphony to the psalms sung at mass.
Jacob Clemens (who may have been called non Papa–“not the pope”– to humorously distinguish him from Pope Clement VII) was an actual Fleming, and never worked abroad. But his music, most of which was religious, was known in Germany, France, Spain and England.
Ivan Moody is an English composer who studied with John Tavener. He is an archpriest of the Orthodox church, and his music is influenced by Greek and Russian Orthodox liturgical chant. His Canticum Canticorum (the name is Latin for Song of Songs) was written for the Hilliard Ensemble, a group New York Polyphony counts among its inspirations.
There is no Rose
The Trinity Roll is a manuscript of thirteen carols written principally in Middle English, with the addition here and there of some Latin. The Roll dates from some time after 1415–about the same time Dunstable and Pyamour were at work. The carols found therein are the earliest examples of polyphonic music written in the English language.
“There is no Rose” is the thirteenth carol in the Roll. NYP writes: “John Scott, organist and director of music at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue set the medieval ‘There is no Rose’ through a labyrinth of key changes with an ear always to the stark harmonies of the original carol while Geoffrey Williams chose to pay homage to the great hymn writer S.S.Wesley’s tune ‘Hereford’.”